To have a booming tourism economy, we need the workforce to make it strong.
There are more than 68,000 employees in the state’s leisure and hospitality industry, according to WorkForce West Virginia. But annually, there are about 4,800 vacancies in the state’s fast food and counter jobs.
West Virginia HEAT, which stands for Hospitality Education and Training, is a program within the West Virginia Department of Education that is dedicated to training the next generation of hospitality workers in West Virginia. These workers are often the first faces visitors see when they come to our state – and you know what they say, “First impressions are everything.”
Liz McCormick spoke with Tami Maynard, who works in the West Virginia HEAT program, to learn more.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
McCormick: Tell us about the history of West Virginia HEAT. When was it created, and why was it something that we felt we needed to establish in West Virginia?
Maynard: It was created in 1994, and it was created to help and assist the hospitality industry to obtain marketable skills and secondary education developed by the hospitality industry.
McCormick: So it’s been around for quite some time?
Maynard: It’s more recognized in our high schools, colleges, universities, and technical centers, and we have three high school programs that are available to students who are interested in a career in the hospitality industry.
We have ProStart, which is a culinary program that is from the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation. And then we have a baking and pastry program of study. And then we have a hospitality and tourism program, a study which focuses on adventure tourism, parks and recreation, and convention and visitor’s bureau and marketing the state of West Virginia.
They’re spread out through all of the high schools. We have about 47 ProStart programs, about 25 baking and pastry, and 11 hospitality and tourism programs. High school students can just talk with their counselor to see what programs are available in their schools and enter one of those program areas. We also do industry training, and students can earn certifications while they’re in these programs.
We also do training for adults and people who are already in the workforce. ServSafe manager is a food service manager certification that is required in many of the counties in West Virginia, depending upon their food code. Then there are food handler and ServSafe alcohol certifications.
We have West Virginia welcome guests customer service training; we’re working to update that program. But then there’s also Guest Services Gold through American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute that students can participate in, in the high school and also in industry.
McCormick: How is the graduation rate among the programs in WV HEAT? How many on average do you see each year that graduate out of the program?
Maynard: Every year, we probably have around 200-300 program completers in our ProStart program, and maybe 50-60 in our baking and pastry, and maybe 30-40 in our hospitality and tourism program.
But we have about 700-800 kids enrolled in ProStart, and about 200-300 in baking and pastry, and about 100 or so in hospitality and tourism.
McCormick: Are these all high school kids?
Maynard: Yes, these are all high school kids. We did start an initiative this year to start a career exploration in middle school. And all of the students in the middle school who participate in the discovery or future course will get a glimpse into the hospitality and tourism industry by taking some of the lesson plans we have created that are directed toward middle school.
McCormick: What do you think are the benefits of learning hospitality training and education, in general?
Maynard: It provides students with an insight to our great state. West Virginia is a wonderful state. We are a tourism state, and allowing students and giving them the knowledge to discover what all is available in their home state might keep workers in West Virginia.
The restaurant industry is one of the biggest employers in the state of West Virginia. So this just helps them know that they can make a living here in West Virginia.
McCormick: How do you get students to want to work in the hospitality industry and help them understand what those opportunities are?
Maynard: Just awareness. A lot of people don’t realize when they are talking about the restaurant industry, for example, that some of our fast food chains – they think are low paying jobs – but as a cook, server or management in the fast food industry, these are very profitable. People can make anywhere from 75,000 to $150,000 [a year] being a district manager or store manager of a fast food restaurant. Restaurant work is hard work, so you really have to have a passion for it. But it’s very rewarding.
McCormick: When we think about the hospitality sector, how do these types of jobs benefit West Virginia, our economy and our image outside of the state?
Maynard: One of the big things we have to work on is changing the image. People may look down on West Virginia, but West Virginia is a beautiful state, and we are so friendly. Every time I interact with someone from out of state, they just talk about how friendly West Virginia is and how beautiful the state is.
So I think both of those are great factors to attract people to West Virginia. But just getting the awareness out, I know Chelsea Ruby [West Virginia’s Tourism Secretary] has been doing a great job with marketing our state across the United States [and] internationally.
I think just getting people here to see what the state is about, and we’re within 500 miles of half the population of the US, so just making sure everybody is aware of that and that we are a tourism state with four seasons. I think that is a big impact.